2016 Masters of the Macabre – Who Will Become The Master?

(image via Wikimedia)We all know and love them. We’ve been obsessed all our lives and can’t get enough of them. As children they frightened us to death. Every country, region, and town has their own urban legends…

Source: 2016 Masters of the Macabre – Who Will Become The Master?

Mark Allan Gunnells, master of the short story, releases a collection that even has Clive Barker smiling

Source: Mark Allan Gunnells, master of the short story, releases a collection that even has Clive Barker smiling

Clive Barker ‘The Scarlet Gospels’ Advance Review

100_1736Good review:  Clive Barker ‘The Scarlet Gospels’ Advance Review.   As you can see in my comments, the review sounds fair, honest, and straightforward.  Also,  I enjoyed his comments on Barker’s other works.  Unfortunately, I have read only The Hellbound Heart and Books of Blood, but I want to read the others as soon as I can dedicate the time to each.  However, I already have a couple of dozen works on my “to read” list including those on my Goodreads “to read” list.  It is unfortunate that Mr. Barker may be going through a down period, but many, if not most, authors and artists of all types do.  What is important is how long the down turn lasts.

Just a few quick thoughts…

The blogger relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening.
The blogger relaxing by the front yard firepit on a chilly New Mexico evening.

I was just sitting here trying to choose one of my many first drafts to work on for tonight, when I started thinking about the different “approaches” (for lack of a better term at the moment) to horror.  By “approaches” I mean a very brief synopsis of a writer’s general outlook on or method of writing horror.    Maybe a better way to express it would be to say the way the author approaches his genre (still not quite right, but I am getting closer to the idea).

An example would be to say that Poe’s approach was to bring out the horror in realistic situations (mostly, he did dabble in the fantastic occasionally).  “The Black Cat” is about a murderer who unknowingly seals up a cat with the corpse of his victim.  Nothing fantastic there.  “The Tell-Tale Heart” is about a murderer whose conscience drives him to confession.  “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about a family with an inherited genetic trait of hypersensitivity.   So forth and so on.

Lovecraft’s approach was to spin tales of the fantastic, especially about a race of elder gods who once dominated the planet millions of years ago and of which mankind encounters remnants on rare occasion.

Stephen King’s approach is to plant an element of the fantastic among ordinary people in ordinary places and watch them react to it.

Clive Barker’s approach seems to be to take something that is fantastic, bloody, cruel, evil and gruesome and either drop it somewhere a single character can deal with it or bring it out of the shadows where a character can deal with it.

Seeing these different approaches in relation to each other makes me think about how do I want to approach an idea or a draft I have of a story.  Do I want to drop the fantastic into the real or bring out the horror in the everyday or in realistic situations or can I come up with something else, my own approach, that is none of these?  That is the challenge of creativity:  to come up with something no one else has done.   Maybe I can just go with the purely fantastic.  Maybe I can try to find the real in the fantastic.

How many different ways are there to horrify an audience?

There is the real and the fantastic and all those subtle shades of gray in between the two.  Can there be anything else?

Thoughts?  Comments?

Excellent Discussion of Horror History at HWA

mod 130419_0008I happened across an excellent roundtable on Horror History 101 at the Horror Writer’s Association (http://horror.org/horror-roundtable-16-horror-history-101/) today while at lunch.  Check it out.  It has a great panel of experts and a wide-ranging discussion of the great horror writers of the past from the beginning of horror with Horace Walpole up to Lovecraft and more.

Notes on “The Hellbound Heart” Part 2 of 2

Clive Barker, Seattle, 2007 by Steven Friederich
Clive Barker, Seattle, 2007 by Steven Friederich

I finished reading The Hellbound Heart several weeks ago.  As noted previously, it is a truly terrific read.    I suggest reading it after seeing the movie (if you have somehow repeatedly missed your chances of seeing “Hellraiser” over the last twenty or so years).   Reading it beforehand will just spoil the movie, whereas reading it afterwards may enlighten parts of the movie.

I don’t have much to add to what I have previously stated, except that, if you are a student of storytelling, the book warrants a detailed examination for narrative technique as it exhibits some basic techniques of storytelling that Mr. Barker carries out very well.   I could go through the book page by page and expound on each ad nauseam, but instead I will focus now on one that sticks in my mind.

I do not recall if this is in the movie, but toward the end where Kirsty is trapped in the “damp room” by Frank, she slips on a bit of preserved ginger lying on the floor enabling Frank to catch her.  The method by which Barker establishes why that ginger is on the floor fascinates me.

Although I have one or two dictionaries of literary terms, I do not recall the name for this technique and I think of it as simply setting the stage for a future scene.  It shows the foresight, planning, and attention to detail that must go into any good story.

Earlier in the story, after Julia has released Frank from the Cenobite hell and he has regained enough flesh that he can once again eat, he asks Julia for a few of his favorite victuals, including preserved ginger.   At the moment I read this, I thought it was simply a natural but insignificant detail.  Of course, I could not know then that that bit of ginger would  skyrocket the dramatic tension later on in one of the novel’s most important scenes.

Anyway, that’s my post for the day.

I have been very negligent in posting anything over the last months,  my daytime job and personal matters consuming much more of my time than usual.  I have recently come to find out though, that many more people in my home town of Frankfort, KY, were enjoying my postings than I had known or even believed possible and sorely missed it during this hiatus.  For them and all the others who silently enjoy my works, I shall endeavor to pick up the thread.

I have not lost my desire to write fiction, however, and I am currently trying to finish a sci-fi/horror novella that I started sometime back.  The work is going well, but I am having to change some of my original concept to make it more exciting.  I would like to make it as gripping as some have found my “Murder by Plastic” (published at www.everydayfiction.com), but that will be quite difficult for something as long as a novella.  The part I find most challenging is to coordinate the details much as Barker did in the example I give above.  I would expound on the subject, but I do not want to give away the plot or run the risk of some unscrupulous cur stealing my idea and publishing it before I do–particularly as I am so close to finishing it.  After this I have another three or four unfinished works to bring to a close.  I could probably write eight hours a day like Thomas Mann and still not be finished by spring.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Notes on Clive Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart”…so far….

I am just past the halfway point in Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart, the novella upon which the orginal “Hellraiser” movie was based. This is one really terrific read.  It is one of those that is hard to put down, even though you know what happens next, because the movie, which you saw twenty years ago and have seen periodically since then,  so closely resembles the book. 

Clive Barker, Seattle, 2007 by Steven Friederich
Clive Barker, Seattle, 2007 by Steven Friederich

The prose is simple, but not Hemingway simple, and there are moments of actual narrative beauty (such as when Barker poignantly describes the passing of seasons in the beginning of one chapter) that seem to be glimpses of insight into a latent aspect of Barker’s immense talent:  that he is able to write actually artistic prose that captures a moment, an emotion, or a sensation with a light touch that carries over to the reader.  I have read the first two volumes (so far) of Barker’s Books of Blood and this quality seems to be lacking in them.  In Books of Blood, he writes splendidly, but not beautifully, not poignantly.  

I also love the way he keeps his characters to a minimum, so that seeing the complex relationships between them is easy.

Another fascinating aspect of Barker’s storytelling in this instance is that he can put his characters in horrifying situations, yet he does not try to be any more graphic than is necessary to invoke an emotional response in the ready.  The few truly graphic scenes I have encountered so far are graphic, but not gratuitously graphic.  An example would be when the recently-resurrected Frank starts to have sex with with brother’s wife Julia.  He shows the act beginning and ends the chapter leaving what happens up to the reader’s imagination.  Yes, this is an old trick straight out of made-for-TV movies, but do you really need to visualize every gory detail of a woman having sex with someone who is still half-corpse?  I didn’t.  And seeing that would not have helped the storytelling and if anything, it would have only detracted from it.   Besides, if someone wants to visualize that unnerving scene for themselves, they are going to whether or not Barker describes it for them.  All that is necessary to show the development of the characters and the plot is to show that they did have sex, because that act in itself shows something about them.  About Frank it show how incredibly callous he is to Julia and how centered he is in the world of his own pleasure.  About Julia, it shows her love for Frank is so self-sacrificing that she is willing to commit the most vile acts for him while taking obscene pleasure in them in her own way. 

Anyway, those are just a few notes so far.  I need to have dinner and do some housework and to read more of this fascinating work.   Hopefully, I will be able to write more soon.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Horror and Imagination

"The Pit and the Pendulum" Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1935
“The Pit and the Pendulum”
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1935

A day or two ago, I finished reading volume 1 of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood.   His style is beautiful; his choice of words is meticulous; his characters are carefully interwoven; and his imagination is mind-boggling.  If you haven’t read this and you call yourself a fan of horror, you should probably be ashamed (I feel ashamed that I have not read him before now).   You are missing out on some terrific stories.  Now I understand why Stephen King called him “the future of horror”.

But of all his praiseworthy attributes, the one that stands out from all the others is his imagination.   I cannot even imagine how he formulates his ideas.   For “Midnight Meat Train”, was he just riding a subway and wonder “where does this go? What’s at the end of the line? Maybe there are cannibals at the end of the line?  Where did they come from?”  How did he associate cannibals with a subway?  [Of course, this is all speculation I am just pulling out of the air.  I have read nothing about Barker’s gifted imagination.  I am using my own imagination and my experience in developing stories to speculate about his methods.]

I heard some place many years ago that genius is not seeing the similarities between apples and oranges (anyone can see the differences), but seeing the similarities between apples and tractors–or in this case, seeing the possible connections between cannibals and subways.

In “In the Hills, the Cities” How did he come up with the concept of giants made of tens of thousands of people functioning together as a single entity?  Was he thinking of the original druid burning men and wonder, “what if they were bigger and could come alive?”

To come up with stories such as these, one must think completely out of the box, out of the established paradigm (per Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

The more I read of works like this, the more I take to heart the advice I see occasionally from publishers that they do not want to see more werewolf-vampire-zombie (wvz) stories or that wvz stories must be very well done to be published.  I enjoy wvz stories as much as the next reader, but if I were a publisher, I do not know if I could stomach seeing hundreds come across my desk in a month for years on end.

In his work “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Lovecraft stresses the importance of an element of the supernatural being present in what he then termed “weird fiction” because if anything is possible, then there are no longer any physical laws of reality to shield us from the horrors that may actually be in the universe.  Barker does exactly that.  In his writing, there are no limits to what may happen to any one at any time.  We are all under the threat of horrific annihilation at any moment.

Likewise, another of Lovecraft’s bits of advice is that characters must be ordinary people so that the appearance of the supernatural will be obvious and stronger than if the characters were all super characters.   This makes sense.  Superman is only super when he is on earth;  he would be just another overworked taxpayer on Krypton.  From what I have seen so far in volume 1 of Books of Blood, all of Barker’s characters are quite ordinary people caught up in quite extraordinary and horrible circumstances.  Perhaps his way of characterization is genius in itself.   I think anyone can make up a fantastic character, but to make someone real, to make a genuine person and have their character show through, when it is easier to make up a shallow one or two dimensional stick figure…isn’t that a form of genius in its own right?   In terms of characterization, Barker’s imagination does not tend to the supernatural, but to the perceptive and to the meticulous.  [No, I haven’t read The Hellbound Heart yet but I have read “The Yattering and Jack”, and I feel confident that when I do finally encounter Pinhead (I have seen a few of the Hellraiser series), he will certainly not be two-dimensional even though he is definitely supernatural.]

But I digress.

The upshot of all this is that as writers we should push our imaginations to the limits, exploring new ways of coming up with ideas, and disdain themes and motifs that have been worked to death for decades.  That is a great part of the challenge of writing.  Though I love classic literature such as that by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, their works do not push the limits of the imagination as do the writers of speculative fiction such as Barker and Lovecraft or Bradbury and Asimov.  Writers of speculative fiction are explorers of the imagination.

But of the subgenres of speculative fiction, where does that leave writers of horror?

It leaves us as explorers of the dark arts of the imagination.  Whereas writers of science fiction and fantasy may push into better worlds like Magellan sailing around the globe, we authors of horror push into the dark, threatening, forbidding areas of the imagination, much as the conquistadors pushed into the Central American jungles or intrepid British explorers pushed along the Congo or Amazon in search of wealth or lost cities.  Indeed, it could be said that we are searching for metaphorical lost cities in the recesses of the mind,  seeking long-hidden worlds surrounded by mystery and horror.

If life is a journey, then we, as writers of horror are choosing the most terrifying journey through the imagination that we can, because we love the thrill of being faced with horror on every side.

Thoughts?  Comments?

The Canon of Horror

"The Tell-Tale Heart" Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1935
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1935

I was just musing that if a canon of horror literature could be developed, what should it include?   This would be a collection of say ten works that define horror literature and that everyone seriously interested in horror should read if he/she they wish to learn what horror is and should be.   This would not be a collection of the most popular works (whether novel, short story, essay, screenplay, theater, etc.) of horror, which would change constantly, but ten works which would define horror now and forever as the Bible does Christianity, as the Koran does Islam, and as the Analects of Confucius do Confucianism.   These should be eternal works that at the end of time, after the Zombie Apocalypse when no more books are written, the few remaining survivors of humanity can review all the literary works of all time and say, “These ten defined the horror genre.”  Of course, this canon will be forever debated, but lively, engaged discussion is the fun of a list like this.

To start off this conversation, here are my initial ten recommendations (subject to change as my reading progresses).  I will keep this list to one work from each of ten authors so that works by one author do not overwhelm the list.  This is not in any order of priority or preference–just as they pop into my mind.   Although these reflect my own reading (which tends to the past more than the present), I have added one or two authors I haven’t read, but from what I understand, have made significant contributions to the horror genre.

  1. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe
  2. Books of Blood by Clive Barker
  3. Carrie by Stephen King
  4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  5. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft
  6. “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White
  7. “The Sandman” by E.T. A. Hoffmann
  8. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  9. “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood
  10. Psycho by Robert Bloch
  11. I am Legend by Richard Matheson

Conflict or Struggle?

Higuchi Jiro Kanemitsu on a wooded mountainside struggling with a giant Monkey which grips his sword-blade between its teeth. Painting by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798 - 1861
Higuchi Jiro Kanemitsu on a wooded mountainside struggling with a giant Monkey which grips his sword-blade between its teeth. Painting by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798 – 1861


If a work of fiction is to succeed in entertaining its audience, there must be conflict.  As this conflict pertains to the horror genre, it may be best to think of it as a struggle.

I think of a conflict as something that can happen over a very short to a very long period of time and may or may not contain any substantial action.  Conflict is a very broad term and can apply to any work of literature or film.   Conflict can apply to Tracy Chevalier’s mind-numbingly boring novel Girl with Pearl Earring as it can to Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart.   Struggle connotates not only a protracted conflict, which is necessary if the work (or anything involving conflict for that matter) is to have any subtantial length.  A boxing match that goes the full fifteen rounds is much more entertaining than one in which one contender is suddenly floored in the first half of the first round.

Struggle connotates action as well, which is as essential for any work of the horror genre as it is to boxing.  In the most entertaining works of horror that come to my mind, the struggle usually begins on or close to the first page and continues on to or close to the last page.  Usually the struggle is between two or more characters, though it can be against inanimate forces (such as surviving a storm) or it can be against inner drives or forces in which the protagonist struggles against himself.

What are your thoughts?  Which term is more suitable for the horror genre:  struggle or conflict?

Thoughts on Speculative Fiction

Lovecraft in the Agony of ContemplationIllustration by MirrorCradle
Lovecraft in the Agony of Contemplation
Illustration by MirrorCradle

As I was driving about town today, I started reflecting on the difference between mainstream, so-to-speak literary fiction and speculative fiction (usually defined as consisting of the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror genres).  I recall reading somewhere, years ago, in the submissions guidelines for a mainstream fiction magazine, that mainstream fiction consisted of whatever did not fit into a genre.  Then, I considered that accurate and reasonable;  now I consider it somewhat snobbish.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more short-sighted and narrow-minded that statement becomes.

Speculative fiction, including the horror genre, deals with fantastic, often surreal, situations.  Mainstream fiction, if you go by the definition above, deals with anything not fantastic, not surreal, i.e. the real, events that could happen in the real world.  It would seem to me that the truly gifted writer would be the one with the greater imagination, the one who can conjure entire civilizations and fantastic creatures out of his mind alone.  My favorite authors for many years have been, and continue to be, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, based on their styles and how their stories can touch me.  However, if had to state who had the greatest imagination out of the history of writers, Tolkien would be at the top, simply because he was able to create an entire world out of his imagination (granted most of the ideas were based in Nordic mythology) and make it and his characters believeable.  Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos would be a close second.

Reading the guidelines of horror publications, I find that many of them do not want werewolf/vampire/zombie (w/v/z)stories.  They want something different, original.   That is a difficult challenge.   I could dream up w/v/z stories all day long, but creating something out of thin air, like Stephen King or Clive Barker does,  and to do it consistenly, is truly admirable. I have written one or two stories along the w/v/z line, but now I am taking up the challenge of writing something truly imaginative.    I have no good ideas just yet, but I am examining how horror authors of the past came up with ideas and what were their inspirations.

So now here is a question of the night:  if you are trying to write material outside the w/v/z tradition, how are you coming up with ideas?  Have you put any new slant on horror?  Do your inspirations come from dreams or from looking at real-world object and then allowing yourself to explore the possibities if something about that scene was just a little bit different?

Thoughts?  Comments?



Is “The Epic of Gilgamesh” the first work of horror?

GilgameshPhoto by Samantha from Indonesia, Sydney Uni., 2006
Photo by Samantha from Indonesia, Sydney Uni., 2006

I have been wondering about what the first work of horror actually is.  The standard answer I find on the Internet is, of course, that the first horror novel is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764, but that doesn’t satisfy me.  I have read a lot of Greek mythology since my early teens and I know they are filled with the kinds of horror that would make Clive Barker shudder and they were written probably 2,000 years before Walpole.    Then I recalled The Epic of Gilgamesh. 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the oldest written story in any language.  It is a long poem, probably written about the 18th century B.C.    I read The Epic of Gilgamesh a few years ago, and although not lengthy, it is difficult to summarize.  In essence, it is the story of a Mesopotamian king named Gilgamesh who builds many wonders but is cruel to his people.  To teach him a lesson, the gods create a wild man named Enkidu in the wilderness who later becomes a close friend of Gilgamesh and with whom Gilgamesh goes on many adventures fighting demons and monsters only to lose Enkidu to disease later.   After Enkidu’s demise, Gilgamesh seeks out Utnapishtim (the Mesopotamian version of Noah) to see if he (Gilgamesh) can have eternal life, but the answer is no.  Gilgamesh returns to his kingdom a wiser man.   Here is a link to a more detailed summary at Spark Notes.   There are several translations in hard copy, but if you are curious about the original form, here is one that can be found at ancienttexts.org.

The Epic of Gilgamesh could perhaps best be described as a myth expressed as an epic poem with elements of horror.  It was probably written more to express a certain philosophy or to record a myth than to entertain, which is the ultimate goal of horror novels and films.    Nonetheless, it does contain elements of horror, particularly supernatural horror, and in the modern age, if it is read outside of a classroom, I think it will be read mostly for entertainment.   So, while it was not written as a novel, would it be accurate to say that The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first work of horror?    If it is, then aficianados of the horror genre could state with pride that the first written work in any language was a work of horror.

What do you think?

The Unrecognized Masters of Horror

If they tried really hard, the majority of the public could perhaps name only four writers of horror:  Stephen King, H.P.Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Clive Barker.   Fans of the horror genre could doubtlessly name many more with the number of the authors they could name reflecting the intensity of their interest.  For example, a person who can name fifteen authors of horror most likely has a more intense interest in the genre than someone who can name only five.

I would say that it is a safe bet that one or more of these authors are the topics in least 75% of all the conversations about horror literature going on at any one moment.  While we amateurs can  improve our skills from studying these four, I think we have a lot to learn from studying authors other than these four.

I recently read a compilation of stories that Lovecraft cites in his work “Supernatural Horror in Literature”.  Of course, only Poe appears among his cited predecessors.   Most of his influences are writers probably most of the modern public has never heard of (Lord Dunsany, Edward Lucas White, Arthur Machen, etc.) though they were as well known in their time as Dean Koontz and Peter Straub are today.

My question to you is:  who are the unrecognized masters of horror that the modern public should know but in all likelihood do not?  Whose name does not usually make it into any top ten list of masters of horror but should?